Saturday, July 10, 2010

A puzzle becomes a window

(David Jones, Mark Strom and Jim Ireland will all realise in this post their own influence on my thinking, the fruit of conversations and reading. With all of its simplistic shortcomings, I offer it with a grateful 'nod' to each of you. I would welcome your critique of the ideas, either in comment here, or via another medium.

My admiration for each of you grows daily as I realise the complex and confusing situations that you have learned to navigate -- and even thrive in. Each of you has influenced our own personal journey through some pretty 'hairy' space! Thanks, guys, for all that you give. A lot of people are grateful for your companionship through the 'trail-blazing'!)

In a recent post I talked about what we have been observing in how our four-year-old, Caelan, solves jigsaw puzzles. He has continued with his new 500-piece puzzle, working with the same methodology.

At the same time as he has been problem-solving a fairly vast territory for a four-year-old, his old man has been trying to solve a puzzle of a different kind.

Without going into too much detail, there has been a business situation which has been both fun and perplexing to navigate. There are multiple parties involved -- many of whom have been unknown -- and a lot of information hidden (or at least unseen). It also involves the interface of several levels of government, the not-for-profit sector, and the business community. Without question, it is the most complex and confusing project I have yet had to navigate.

Caelan's 'puzzling' has become a window on working in a situation fraught with complexity and confusion.

I note his ability to quickly scope for a solution. When there is a lot of material to get acquainted with, and a vast territory to cover, it is important to identify the major features of the landscape first. Grabbing at random pieces which lack 'chunky' detail provides no context, and attempting to create a boundary (edge pieces) tells you very little of the conversation / features going on within the edges (or beyond). The picture is a lot more than the edges or random noise.

Those in our business who have been puzzling through this situation have had to locate the major features of the puzzle in a fairly short time frame (the scale of the project, the intent, the timing, the places, the specifications; the designers, the clients, the contractors, the project managers, the suppliers). For the benefit of the business, and the benefit of our clients, we have worked to find the right questions and tease out the main connecting features. This gives context to our actions, and intent to our conversations.

Caelan does not get bogged down in secondary detail. Complex and confusing situations can disorient us, and cause us to lose sight of the most important questions and objectives. There are many secondary issues to distract us, and prevent us from seeing what there is to be seen. These secondary issues can also stifle our capacity to scope quickly if we insist on using secondary (or tertiary) information as a means of bridging between the main features of problems and solutions. We can end up dying of thirst trying to reach the next oasis by insisting on counting the grains of sand as we go.

A ‘map’ (i.e. the lid of the box) is a useful thing to have, but that does not mean it should be followed slavishly. Sometimes you cover more territory more quickly by working with gut instincts and an eye for patterns. Working from someone else's pre-determined pattern (painting by numbers) also leaves you more inclined to fill in masses of secondary detail simply because you can. Our attempt to scope quickly can thus be stymied. Working instinctively may also lead us along a different, potentially wiser, knowledge pathway to that which is determined when the path is laid out before us in a dogmatic fashion. There is also the benefit of seeing with a fresh set of eyes.

When you’re small, you sometimes need to get up and walk around the puzzle to ‘see’ what you’re looking for. Not every piece of a conundrum makes sense from one standpoint; things can be hard to locate. Sometimes you need to get up and move, see the whole puzzle from another perspective, view the dislocated pieces from the opposite angle, and with a different play of light. It’s also helpful to stand back occasionally and quickly move your eyes over the whole -- it serves to verify and critique the 'scoping' you undertook / are undertaking. Perhaps (for example) you identifed and pieced together a major puzzle 'fractal', but wrongly located its place in the whole.

An eye for fine detail can be a blessing. Two shades of black might look the same to one set of eyes, but another set of eyes notes a subtle but important difference (i.e. things that appear to be of similar nature may not be, and they may belong in vastly different sectors of the problem / solution).

The challenge and the solution are both broadly fractal in nature. But not everything we encounter in this project is. The secondary and tertiary ‘noise’ seems to function less as something that can be completely known and named in itself. The puzzle could still be something meaningful (albeit diminished)without the 'stuffing' between the major features, but it would be much less meaningful if all we had was secondary noise and no features / anchors / bases.

Caelan will sometimes begin a puzzle he has done before in a different place, and will ‘build’ it around different features. A sameness of approach to every situation is no virtue. Even having a couple of different heads working over the same problem, probing together for worthy questions, will unearth different points of entry and different knowledge paths to get us to a solution. This is not a linear process, and there is more than one way to scope and navigate successfully. Sometimes there is even redemption in what appears to be a poorly-chosen path, and fresh possibilities are opened to us as we leave the highways and hit the bush tracks.

We persevere because of a conviction about the worthiness of the enterprise. There is a reason why we do not and cannot rest content with a mountain of scrambled pieces when there is intelligence and beauty lying latent and ready to reward our efforts. There is creating work to be done, and it is good!

Lastly, when you can’t find a piece, it’s okay to ask for help. Problem-solving in a worthy enterprise isn’t about preserving the sanctity / glory of any one ‘problem-solver’. We work together as we see the different parts, and getting to a working vision -- a way forward -- leaves little room for ego.

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